Before you can establish child support, sometimes you have to determine paternity first. That’s Lindsay Schwab’s job – doing the investigation and leg work that allows a judge to legally declare who a child’s father is.
Getting a father listed on a birth certificate is necessary for more than establishing financial responsibility.
“Once you have that legal relationship,” Schwab says, “a child would have the same rights as a child born within a marriage: having access to the father’s medical history, inheritance rights, access to benefits such as Social Security survivor benefits. And just the right to know who their father is, their cultural identity.”
Voluntary – or not
Schwab gets most of her cases when a mother applies for medical assistance with a newborn, or applies for some form of public aid for a child. Paternity cases open automatically when a mother participates in the Minnesota Family Investment Program, or starts receiving Medical Assistance, MinnesotaCare health insurance, or child-care assistance.
Hennepin establishes paternity in 99 percent of its cases, one of the best rates in the nation. Sometimes, it’s easy. The father can sign a notarized “recognition of parentage” form, which voluntarily settles the legal issue. Other cases are not easy at all.
“Sometimes they know who the dad is, sometimes they’re not sure,” Schwab says of the mothers she deals with. In those cases – more than 1,200 times last year – the county does genetic testing.
“That can be interesting,” Schwab says, “because sometimes the mom is so sure it’s one guy, and it’s not. So, I’m sometimes the bearer of bad news. Sometimes, the dad really wants to be the dad, and he’s not. So that can be challenging. The outcome isn’t what the client wanted, and you just kind of feel bad for them.”
Finding the truth
Sometimes, Schwab has to try to track down the alleged father, because the mother has lost touch. Other times, the mother is lying – even though not cooperating can cost mothers 25 percent of their public assistance.
“So, what is the truth?” Schwab says. “I’m trying to find that. She might be saying, ‘Oh, I don’t know where he is,’ but they’re really living together, that type of thing. Or there are pictures on Facebook of them together, all happy, from last month, when she’s telling me, ‘Oh, I haven’t talked to him since I was seven months’ pregnant’.”
There are other reasons a mother doesn’t want child support. One is that their welfare check will shrink dollar for dollar. “So, they don’t want their grant reduced,” Schwab says. “Though they’re still getting the same amount, it’s coming from the father versus the taxpayer, and he may not be as reliable.”
But in other cases, “it’s more the mothers are hesitant of having the father involved, for whatever reason. They just don’t think he’s a good role model.” Often, mothers will give up their public assistance and go it alone rather than deal with child-support issues.
“Sometimes, there’s safety concerns between the parties. If they have a legitimate safety concern and there’s an order for protection, we will not proceed on those cases, because we don’t want to harm the client or her children even more,” Schwab says.
Once paternity is established, Schwab works with a county attorney to develop the court case that settles the matter legally. She usually has to be in court once a week to shepherd cases through.
At that time, the court not only declares paternity, it also settles primary custody, parenting time, and child support. Schwab, like other child-support officers, remains neutral in how custody and visitation are divvied up. “We’re more concerned about getting the financial pieces in place, because public money – taxpayers’ money – is supporting this kid.”
Once the court order comes through, Schwab enters it into the database and, if necessary, sends the paperwork out to an employer to begin withholding child-support payments. She closes the case on her end by transferring it to enforcement.
Getting to that point, however, requires listening, sensitivity, the ability to mediate between parents, and understanding the dynamics of different families and cultures, Schwab says.
“I feel I’ve been able to deal with the drama pretty well. Sometimes I’m a little bit of a therapist, letting them talk about everything that’s gone wrong, trying to be as empathetic as I can. It’s a lot of hand holding, letting them vent, but staying on track.”